Thursday, November 27, 2014

How You Too Can Predict the Outcome of a Snap Election

In a tweet the other day regarding the upcoming snap election, I took the over in a hypothetical over-under of a 30-seat loss for the LDP-Komeito coalition and also claimed that the current Abe cabinet would remain intact. It is the only one of my tweets that has been retweeted and favorite multiple times. I have also received more than the usual one or two phone calls from media acquaintances around the event. So, as a public service, I am laying out how I arrived at those predictions. The first method is easy to replicate and should be applicable to other national elections, while the second is a point that is also easily applicable albeit to the limited cases where a similar situation prevails.

When the LDP leaked suggestions of a 30-seat decline as a win-loss threshold, I became certain that it had good reason to believe that it was setting a low but plausible bar for itself. The LDP commissions private polls that I am inclined to believe for reasons that I will skip are more accurate than the media polls, which were still showing the ruling coalition (more specifically LDP) with a huge lead over the opposition parties. The LDP leadership also has a strong incentive to lowball its chances within plausible limits.

Would the LDP lead endure? The question could be cast in a more operative mode as follows: Are there uncertainties that could generate a major downside for the ruling coalition or major upside for the opposition? On the first point, the cabinet had already taken its lumps with the political financing scandals and the surprise technical recession, yet the post-announcement polls continued to show the LDP with what, obvious even to my non-abacus-trained eye, was a roughly 2.5-to1, 3-to-1 lead over its main rival DPJ. Barring an unlikely scandal enveloping the prime minister himself or mishandling of a very low-probability major disaster, there does not seem to be a meaningful downside risk to the ruling coalition’s political situation.

The DPJ is led by the weepy Banri Kaieda, whose most significant attribute appears to be an inability to be forceful enough to create internal enemies (a talent not to be underestimated BYW in a party that spans ideologies and policy preferences that are at least as disparate as those of the LDP but has yet to develop a similar culture of cohesion). As for the other meaningful opposition parties (as in plausible members of a coalition consisting largely of current opposition parties or their members), the Japan Innovation Party has run out of steam (Hashimoto slipping into irrelevance while internal differences seethe just beneath the surface), and the People’s Life Party is on life support (Ichiro Ozawa appears to have reached the end of his long string of construction-destruction cycles), and Your Party is over (literally). And don’t even ask me about the Party (of eighty-somethings) for Future Generations, where Shintaro Ishihara passed his consume-by date when he split with Hashimoto. Tell me where is the potential for upside?

So, with prospects so bleak for the opposition and the ruling coalition riding high, why not predict a gain for the LDP? After all, the LDP is doing better and the DPJ is doing worse in at least one post-announcement newspaper poll than they did at a similar pre-2012 election poll by that newspaper, even as support for the other opposition parties not named the Japan Communist Party has dwindled.

Not so fast. Although there are no major downsides/upsides to the ruling coalition/opposition parties of significance, the media is naturally biased towards making a national election more of a contest. Thus, commentary and even straight reporting will tilt in favor of the opposition in comparison to a situation where the outcome is more in doubt. The generally risk-averse public will respond positively to such media inducements in a desire to rein in an over-euphoric post-victory administration. Remember, the public is somewhat misaligned with the prime minister’s policy preferences. The candidacy coordination between the opposition parties (aided ironically by the inability of the DPJ to field candidates across-the-board) will also help the opposition in the single-seat races. Of course the unattractiveness of the alternatives will drive much of the discontented independent voters away from the voting stations rather than towards opposition. Still, there’s enough uncertainty here to take comfort in the 30-seat margin. I don’t like to “lose,” any more than the LDP prognosticators do.

To sum it up, take note of the LDP’s initial bid, since it is likely to be low-balling its chances. Then keep an eye on public polling trends, go over the potential major upside/downside risks for the relevant parties. Finally, look to the natural media bias, which, barring the existence of another overwhelmingly attractive narrative, favors the underdog (remember, the LDP was widely believed to be headed for disaster in 2006 when Prime Minister Koizumi dissolved the lower house for the postal reform election). If you follow this process, you will almost surely arrive at the same conclusion as I do. And I think that this process is applicable, in toto or in part, to all Japanese national elections.

There. That essentially explains what I did, some of it not so deliberately, and some of it may seem clear only in hindsight. But I do think that it is a process that can be easily used by anyone with knowledge of the political process in Japan.

As for my call on retaining the entire cabinet, why would he retain the two other cabinet members implicated in political financing scandals, have them pass through the misogi by election, then dismiss them? For that matter, what would be the justification of changing any ministers without cause only three months after the reshuffle? Case over.

There is one caveat there. If a cabinet minister fails to get reelected, he’s gone. Technically, (s)he can be retained, but as a practical matter, (s)he’s a goner. But that was too much to put in a single tweet.

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